Writing and writers seem to be the dominant theme in this weekend’s new releases—something that is seldom a particularly exciting subject for movies, admittedly. But between a high-profile literary adaptation and a couple seriocomedies about classically angst-ridden scribes, the profession doesn’t do too badly as fodder for screen entertainment this time around.
Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson’s 2003 Norwegian novel, which was translated and published in different languages over the next several years, is one of those rare serious literary works that somehow becomes an international best seller. Why this book, and not one of the many other equally strong works of fiction that go basically unnoticed all the time? Beats me. In any case, it’s a complex narrative that sprawls across decades, yet does so in a classically spare, restrained Scandinavian voice that packs it all into just 240 pages.
Given content high on plot and incident, it would have seemed a natural for dramatization, but Hans Petter Moland’s movie is a qualified success at best. His frequent star, the estimable Stellan Skarsgard, plays an elderly widower content to live alone in rural isolation until an encounter with a neighbor stirs up not-particularly-welcome memories. Over half a century earlier, Trond had been a teenager spending the summer in a cottage with his father, while hanging out with local youth Jon. The latter’s negligence leads to a tragedy that has great consequences, not least revealing the extent to which Trond’s father had been—and perhaps still is—involved with Jon’s mother as former members of the Resistance during Norway’s Nazi occupation a few years earlier.
Though he omits or reduces some of the original narrative elements, Moland’s screenplay nonetheless retains the book’s structural complexity, weaving back and forth between the present (in 1999) and various points in the past. What had a succinct precision in print too often winds up just seeming cluttered and melodramatic onscreen, however, with characters that seem less than three-dimensional suffering a pileup of calamities that lack emotional force.
The director doesn’t really help matters by pouring a thick syrup of prettifying visual lyricism over everything, making the familiar mistake of assuming that over-fussed imagery will somehow equal literary depth. Perhaps the key to the novel’s effectiveness was the very self-abnegation of Petterson’s terse prose; its strengths somehow ebb away in this elaborately “tasteful,” literal depiction. Releasing to On Demand platforms today, it’s not a bad film per se, but may be appreciated best by those who did not read the book.
Authors in Purgatory: Two new comedies
Much lighter in tone and content are these two playfully offbeat (mostly) comedies about novelists at very different career/life junctures, albeit both plagued by self-doubt and relationship failures.
Kris Rey’s I Used to Go Here has Gillian Jacobs as Kate, a 30-ish novelist whose excitement at having a new book launched dims when the publishing co. informs that due to disappointing initial sales, her promotional tour is now canceled. There’s some compensation, however, in being asked by her favorite professor-mentor (the always-welcome Jermaine Clement) to speak at her alma mater.
Nostalgia for college days immediately overwhelms Kate, despite the sour notes hit by her ex-fiancee’s refusal to return calls and a grumpy bed & breakfast hostess. Indeed, Kate gets a little too caught up in retro-activity, wedging herself into the lives of the students across the street, who live in the house she once called home. I Used to Go Here is like a very good New Yorker short story, drolly amusing and relatable, seemingly slight, but then with surprising accumulative weight as the characters find out a little more about themselves than they (or we) were prepared for. It’s a small gem that’s available On Demand as of today.
Bigger but not better is Mon chien Stupide, in which veteran writer-director-actor Yvan Attal once again co-stars with wife Charlotte Gainsbourg. His Henri a one-hit-wonder literary novelist since fallen into critically panned followups, soul-killing if lucrative screenplay work, and a very comfortable lifestyle he doesn’t appreciate in the least—not excluding his by-now thoroughly disillusioned spouse and four layabout adult children. Their mutual stasis is somehow broken by the discovery of a Neapolitan mastiff found cowering in the backyard bushes. It adopts the household, and Henri refuses to get rid of it, despite such problematic habits as the dog wanting to hump strangers’ legs. Instead of bringing everyone together, however, this new member somehow drives the family apart—or rather accelerates Henri’s mingled self-pity and contempt, which push everyone else out the door.
They’re a dyspeptic, dysfunctional lot who probably need to get away from one another—and from Dad in particular, whom Gainsbourg’s weary wife aptly calls “lazy, arrogant, self-centered and an all-around asshole.” So when Mon chien Stupide (they actually name the dog “Stupid”) starts prodding us to wax sentimental over this dissolution of family togetherness, it rings false—we don’t really believe these people are good for, or even very fond of, each other, despite chamber arrangements of Radiohead songs on the soundtrack striking a plaintive note.
Though well-made, I found the whole enterprise at once sour and sitcom-ish. Strangely, it’s based on a story by John Fante, who wrote that quintessentially American writer-as-tortured-poetical-
Psychomagic and more Jodorowsky
One of the more surprising cinematic comebacks in recent years was that of the now 91-year-old Alejandro Jodorowsky, the famed Chilean-French multimedia surreallist best known for 1970 cult classic El Topo. After decades of near-complete screen inactivity, he suddenly returned not just with new films (2013’s The Dance of Reality, 2016’s Endless Poetry), but ones that were up there with his best work. Which frankly cannot be said for his latest Psychomagic, A Healing Art (more info here), which is basically just a compilation of video footage portraying his applications of drama therapy and ritual for people whose adult problems have typical roots (their parents didn’t love them enough, mostly).
Despite clips from his “real” movies interspersed throughout, this documentary is the sort of thing that would be more appropriate to showing at the Whole Life Expo or some such New Age-y forum. Jodorowsky completists will probably want to give it a look, but even they should expect a career-footnote curiosity, not a fully realized work of art. However, the arrival of Psychomagic is giving Alamo Drafthouse an excuse to program virtually all of the nonogenarian auteur’s major filmic works (you can live without the minor ones, Tusk and The Rainbow Thief) as part of Alamo On Demand.
Everything from 1968’s B&W Fando y Lis to the aforementioned Poetry is here, including 1989’s Santa Sangre and arguably his greatest achievement, 1973’s psychedelic spiritual epic The Holy Mountain. Few filmmakers have managed to sustain such a singular, challenging, ambitious and fantastical sensibility over such a long haul. In a way, he’s the perfect quarantine director—offering a travelogue of things you’ve never seen (and some you may wish you hadn’t), while also taking your mind for an expansive walk. More info here.
The horror, the horror: Two movies about people-eaters
On a less elevated plane, there’s always the entertainment value of a good scare. You will definitely get that with Black Water: Abyss, the belated sequel to a 2007 Australian thriller that saw several boating day-trippers stranded, treed and fed upon by one very large, hungry crocodile.
Andrew Traucki’s followup has the bright idea of placing another group of tasty humans in an underground cavern where they’ve gone caving, only to find themselves stuck when a flash flood above-ground cuts off the tunnels they’d entered through. As if that weren’t bad enough…well, you guessed it. Turns out they are not quite alone down here. The combination of dark, wet, murky and claustrophobic makes for an atmospherically creepsome experience even before the introduction of a giant reptile with many many teeth.
Equally lethal if considerably sillier is the menace presented in Uncle Peckerhead (https://subtletrex.com ) Matthew John Lawrence’s horror comedy. A trio of pop-punkers known as Duh! think they’ve lucked out when the titular yokel (David Littleton) offers to replace their repossessed tour van with his own. He’ll even drive them to their gigs, for free. There’s a wee catch: Each midnight, unless properly sedated, Uncle P. turns into some kind of cannibalistic beast.
Given that the band is having to constantly deal with rip-off promoters, obnoxious metalheads, and other annoyances, this turns out not to be an entirely bad thing. Still, a trail of blood is not the ideal kind of “following” you want to acquire on your maiden club tour. The movie’s strongest suit—its satire of the indie music world—could be sharper, but for those with a taste for black comedy and schlock horror, Uncle will provide some lively fun. It opens in limited theaters (presumably drive-ins) today, arriving on home formats next Tuesday; Black Water: Abyss launches in both today.